Chekhov: A Biography

Written by V. S. Pritchett

(Penguin Books, 1988, 235 pages)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


Anton Chekhov is not as well known today in the West as he has been. He is, nevertheless, widely acclaimed as the master of the short story. The relative unpopularity of the short story today might explain something of his neglect by us. Pritchett’s book is now about thirty years old. That doesn’t mean it’s obsolete, but it does, once again, indicate something of Chekhov’s obscurity.

Upon opening the book, the reader will right away be struck by the author’s writing style: short, choppy sentences. That’s not a criticism; it’s an observation. It’s not how I write, but it is appropriate, given the author’s goal in this book – to present an overview of Chekhov’s life and works. As such, Pritchett hits his mark, for better or for worse. Someone wishing to “really get to know Chekhov” will be unsatisfied. Someone wishing to “place” all of his individual works within the timeframe of his life will consider this book perfect. One might be apt to say that some lives are just not interesting enough to merit a full-length biography, but interest is in the eye of the beholder. If we take a hint from Pritchett, Chekhov was a unique and perplexing individual. After having read this book I can only say that, though he was not a “great man,” he had an irrepressible ability to see things in or about people that certainly merit recording. He did not write on the grand scale like the two most famous Russian writers, nor in the pleasing, florid style of Turgenev. And yet, one would be hard pressed to find more accurate presentations of basic human life anywhere in literature. He wrote well on the small scale. This is not a remark about his genre of preference, but about the type of story that interested him. Hardly anything great ever happened in his stories. One of his best, which I mentioned before in my review of the Twentieth Century Russian Reader, The Bishop, is simply about the death of a bishop, on an Easter in an insignificant locale. Perhaps the most dramatic event in one of his stories that we hear about in Pritchett overview concerns a baby who is killed by a woman in a fit of jealous rage.

No, Chekhov’s interest was in basic human psychology. There is more than a hint of the dismal and depressing here. I am reminded of Gorky’s My Childhood, etc. But, unlike Gorky, he is not making a social protest. He is simply describing life as he sees it. I like one of his literary maxims to which Pritchett makes mention: he was about describing things well, not about drawing conclusions for the reader. I like that. Instinctively, I know that to be correct about fiction.

An excellent economical overview of the life and works of the great writer. Neither more nor less than that.


Anton Chekhov with Leo Tolstoy